Concerned about being on the losing end of an information war, state election officials are seeking outside help with messaging and rapid-response efforts in hopes they won't be caught flatfooted by dubious claims of voter fraud.
In Wisconsin, for instance, election officials have been hounded by President Donald Trump's claims of election fraud following reports that three trays of mail had been found in a ditch in Outagamie County. "In Wisconsin, three trays of mail containing absentee ballots were found in a ditch; they were thrown in a ditch. Three trays. That's a lot," Trump said at a news conference last week in which he ticked off multiple misleading and false examples of alleged voter fraud.
But Wisconsin's chief election official, Meagan Wolfe, said last week that "no Wisconsin ballots" were discovered in the discarded mail, though there were some absentee ballots from other states among the three trays of mail.
The episode was a cautionary tale for state and local election officials across the country who are preparing to carry out one of the most complicated elections in US history, with a surge of mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So Wisconsin's election officials are trying to fight back. The Wisconsin Election Commission, which hired an ad agency last year, asked the agency last month to create a social media-friendly graphics in order to combat misinformation from all sources.
"We're acutely aware that anything that happens in the smallest of towns could end up being a national news story," Wisconsin Election Commission spokesman Reid Magney told CNN. "We're monitoring social media, we've got contingency communication plans, we're constantly in contact with our partners in law enforcement at the federal level. We're obviously keeping our eye on things and being able to respond quickly when things happen."
Across the country, states are already conducting elections under the microscope of Trump's campaign that's looking to magnify any real or perceived issues with voting. Trump and his campaign have seized on problems, large and small, to try to bolster Trump's baseless claims that the election will be "rigged" because of vote-by-mail.
Trump's COVID-19 infection and hospitalization last week quieted his complaints about mail-in ballots on Twitter, at least temporarily. He started ramping up his tweeting again Monday morning as he hopes to be discharged from the hospital, with a series of tweets encouraging his supporters to vote that underscore the election remains on his mind as he battles coronavirus.
Most of the examples Trump has cited in recent weeks aren't examples of fraud at all. Instead, they're administrative errors, mistakes or incidents coincidental to the election, like the mail found in a ditch in Wisconsin.
The reality is that there will inevitably be issues with states and localities all running elections at the same time with millions of ballots being cast by mail and in person. From software breakdowns to long lines to voters disappearing from voter rolls to ballots getting lost in the mail, these issues have inevitably popped up each election year.
Even with these isolated issues, experts inside and outside the US government say unequivocally: There is no widespread voter fraud in US elections.
But the intense focus on the voter anomalies this year from Trump means state and local officials have to be on guard for anything out of the ordinary.
"It is really frustrating when we're already dealing with misinformation from a lot of different angles, and it's coming from directly from the White House. And those kind of things can spread so rapidly on social media," Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, told CNN last week.
Magney said Wisconsin was inspired to create the social media graphics on voter fraud after seeing Sonoma County, California, mount a social media campaign to push back on false reports that absentee ballot envelopes had been found in recycling bins.
Last month, Sonoma County sent a tweet with the county seal asking for help to "stop a false report."
"Someone posted pictures on the web showing empty Vote-by-Mail envelopes from Sonoma County in recycling bins," the county said. "The pictures are of old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election that were disposed of as allowed by law."
Pennsylvania in the eye of the storm
In Pennsylvania, nine military absentee ballots found on a garbage can zoomed from local media reports to the White House briefing room after Trump jumped on the story, citing it repeatedly as evidence of fraud, including at last week's debate.
Trump's claims were bolstered by the Justice Department, which took the unusual step of noting in its press release that the ballots had been cast for Trump (they had to later clarify it was seven of the nine ballots).
"They found some, just happened to have the name Trump, just the other day in a wastepaper basket," Trump said at Tuesday's debate.
The nine ballots were discarded due to a clerical error, Pennsylvania officials have said, not because of fraud. That hasn't stop Trump from pointing to the episode to claim it as proof the election is going to be fraudulent.
Trump also claimed at the debate that people affiliated with his campaign were thrown out of an in-person early voting polling site last week because "bad things happen in Philadelphia." In fact, they weren't removed because of an anti-Trump plot, but because state law only allows partisan poll watchers on Election Day and the voting locations were election offices, not traditional polling places.
An official in the Pennsylvania attorney general's office told CNN the wastebasket episode was an example of how mistakes are being exploited by Trump and his allies to create confusion and doubt.
Pennsylvania is under the microscope in particular, the official noted, because it's one of the key swing states in the presidential contest.
"We need to be rapid-response reactive -- creating an internal apparatus to take on things quickly as possible," the official said. "Because we're going to have so much of this. It's not the last time we'll see a ballot in the wrong pile."
Problems arise as ballots are sent out
As more states begin sending out mail-in ballots, additional issues have sprung up. In New York for instance, the New York City Board of Elections is sending replacement ballots to 100,000 voters in Brooklyn who were affected by a misprint from a third-party vendor.
Trump took to Twitter to attack the "100,000 defective ballots," falsely suggesting the duplicates "will be used by somebody" despite technology that prevents voters from casting two ballots.
Trump's campaign staffers were amplifying tweets of Washington, DC, residents who received ballots last week sent to individuals no longer living at the addresses. The situation was messy, as extra ballots lying around creates more risk of fraud. Those ballots, however, require signature verification -- a key technological safeguard that would make it extremely difficult for someone to try to use a ballot sent to the wrong address.
In North Carolina, a glitch last month that led to fewer than 500 voters receiving two absentee ballots sparked tweets from the president that the election was "rigged." Election officials responded by explaining to voters "exactly what happened, why it happened, and how it happened," said North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon.
"I think when we when we do presentations for groups, about all of the different ways that elections are safeguarded in North Carolina and across the country, they come away with a far different perception of the integrity of their ballot and/or the safeguards that are in place to protect their vote," Gannon said.
"Voters are very concerned about election integrity this year, maybe even more so than ever," he added. "And it is important, it is imperative that they get the facts about voting, the facts about the elections process. And we do our best with limited resources to respond to the myriad of misinformation that exists on social media and otherwise."
Ann Grossi, the county clerk in Morris County, New Jersey, said the environment is intense this year as the state is one of several that's shifted to universal vote-by-mail as a result of the pandemic. Grossi noted there are the system isn't perfect: Her staff has to manually place ballots into envelopes, and there are flaws in their databases that can lead some people to receive two ballots, such as women who get married and change their name who might remain in the system under both names.
She's tried to be proactive and explain the process to voters who are taking to social media to complain.
"I have been very transparent on our website -- what we're doing, trying to talk about the fact we manually insert them -- trying to give people something to understand, so that they're not so angry," Grossi said.
"I feel the pressure more than anyone because my name is on every envelope that goes out to every household," she added, "because anything that's wrong, people perceive it as my fault because I'm county clerk, even if it's out of my control."
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